Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Steelers with Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Steelers with Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Each week during the 2012 season we're hitting up some of the most knowledgeable people on the Internet when it comes to the Philadelphia Eagles' opponent that particular Sunday. Today we have Alan Robinson, Steelers beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Kulp: Pittsburgh is 1-2 heading into the intrastate matchup, and you wrote their campaign could very well hinge on this game. The team seems to be getting healthy right on cue, with Rashard Mendenhall, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu all potentially available this week. Assuming they all play, are the Steelers' problems suddenly solved?

Alan Robinson: Not necessarily. The Steelers' problems are across the board, ranging from an inability to run the ball, get to the quarterback or stop teams in the fourth quarter, where they've been outscored 30-13. Harrison and Polamalu are potential game-changers, of course, but Harrison is 34, Polamalu is closing in on 32 and injuries are becoming an issue. Harrison hasn't even practiced on consecutive days since last season. What the Steelers need Harrison to do is bring some pressure some how. They have only five sacks in three games and their 3-4 defensive line is not playing well. But the question is how effective Harrison can be on a knee that has blown up constantly whenever he's tried to push it, and without a full week of practice in nine months. What the Steelers have to hope is this isn;t the mobile Michael Vick they saw in either 2002, when he rallied the Falcons from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter (the only time that happened against a Bill Cowher team) or in 2006, when he threw four touchdown passes against them.

The Steelers have evolved with the NFL and have featured a pass-first offense for awhile, but their ground attack has been non-existent so far this season. They're 31st in yards per game (65.0), dead last in yards per attempt (2.6) -- as you wrote last week, their worst start in 62 years. Mendenhall appears set to return from a torn ACL, but is that really going to be a cure-all?

He's twice rushed for 1,000 yards, and he might have had another 1,000-yard season if he hadn't gotten hurt against the Browns in the final regular season game last season. Unlike Harrison, Mendenhall has been practicing regularly since the season started, and the main thing is he's better than what they've got. Mike Tomlin was so desperate to find a hot running back that four different backs got carries against the Raiders. Yet the Steelers still haven't had a back gain more than 43 yards in a game this season. If Mendenhall can't do it, their only option might be to bring Jerome Bettis or Franco Harris out of retirement. One factor: This is a contract year for Mendenhall, and he's playing for a deal next year. That's often the recipe for a big season.

James Harrison has averaged nearly 11 sacks per season over the last five years, but has yet to play this season after August knee surgery. Through four weeks, only six teams have notched fewer sacks per game than the Steelers (1.67). As of today, Harrison wasn't listed on the injury report, but you wrote he'll need to get through a full week of practice without swelling. Do you think he will be ready to go, or perhaps only available on a so-called pitch count?

They need him as many snaps as they can get him, and now. They can't afford to lose this game, drop to 1-3 and potentially fall well behind two teams with 4-1 records (the 3-1 Ravens and Bengals both play 1-3 teams this week). It's a very big game for the Steelers so early in the season, and that could be one reason why they can't wait any longer to see what Harrison can do. The key will be if he gets through practice both Wednesday and Thursday; he hasn't gone back-to-back yet this year. He didn't even dress for practice when the knee acted up last Wednesday, before they broke for the bye week, but Tomlin said Harrison had some "intense workouts" over the weekend. If that's intense by James Harrison's definition of intense, that could be a good sign for the Steelers.

Despite their inability to generate a consistent pass rush without Harrison, and even with Polamalu missing two of three games, Pittsburgh is still ranked third in passing yards allowed (190.3 per game). What is their secret?

Mark Sanchez did nothing against them (10-of-27, 138). That skews the numbers; Peyton Manning was 19 of 26 for 253, 2 TDs and couldn't be stopped in the second half in his first game in 20 months; Carson Palmer was  24 of 34 for 209 and 3 TDs and couldn't be stopped in the second half. (Even if Denver stopped him the whole game, limiting the Raiders to 6 points). If LeSean McCoy opens things up for Vick by getting yards early on, Vick is very capable of doing to the Steelers defense what Manning and Palmer did. The difference is those games were on the road, no QB has lit up the Steelers at Heinz Field since Tom Brady in 2010.

The biggest difference between this year and last for the Steelers seems to be new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. In what ways has the offense changed under his direction?

Roethlisberger is motioning a lot more at the line of scrimmage in the no-huddle offense than he did under Bruce Arians, and he's also getting rid of the ball faster than before, when he was constantly looking to get the ball down field to Mike Wallace or to improvise. The receivers are running more underneath routes and are getting targeted more by a quarterback who generally prefers to throw the home-run ball but is strongly being encouraged to be more reluctant to take sacks. Haley wanted to run the ball more effectively at times when the Steelers needed to wind the clock, but the running game's awful start has prevented that. So far, the offense looks much like it did when the Steelers successfully took the ball out of Brady's hands last season at Heinz Field by having Roethlisberger control the clock, throw a lot of safe passes and win the time of possession battle. The Steelers have done that in every game, but it hasn't mattered because -- unlike that Patriots game last season that the Steelers won 25-17 -- they can't keep their opponents out of the end zone when it matters. The Broncos (3 times) and Raiders (5 times) combined to score on each of their eight meaningful second-half possessions.

For the latest news on the Steelers, check out the Tribune-Review sports page.

Sixers clicking just in time to face surging Raptors on Wednesday

Sixers clicking just in time to face surging Raptors on Wednesday

The Sixers are clicking just in time to face their toughest competition in over a month. The Raptors (28-13) come to Philadelphia as the Sixers have won six of their last eight games by holding one another accountable and taking each outing step-by-step.

“You feel like the group is coming together,” Brett Brown said. “You feel like all the work that we have put in is starting to pay dividends in relation to a solid foundation.”

The Raptors sit second in the Eastern Conference, just one and a half games behind the Cavaliers. The last time they met, the Raptors beat the Sixers 123-114 on Dec. 14 at the Wells Fargo Center.

A lot has changed since then, especially the rotations. Brown started Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together against the Raptors, an experiment that waned out after six games. The Sixers have found a formula to winning with an established starting lineup and a consistent second unit, with the added experience of Gerald Henderson and Nerlens Noel. They will be tested Wednesday as both Joel Embiid (illness) and T.J. McConnell (wrist) are questionable.

“When you look at this team, it’s a lot of talent but we didn’t play as a team,” Ilyasova said of the start of the season. “Now we come together. I think it’s all about the chemistry, we trust each other.”

The Sixers are looking to carry over the momentum of a 113-104 victory over the Bucks in Milwaukee on Monday. They got a test of All-Star caliber talent against Giannis Antetokounmpo, whom they held to two points in the second half. The Sixers will have their hands full with the backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry (22.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists) and DeMar DeRozan (28.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists).

One key to countering talent like that placing an importance on accountability. The players are not letting each other off the hook for mistakes on the court, regardless of who the opponent is.

“I could see it over the past couple weeks, guys coming out here and being more vocal on both ends of the court,” Noel said. “If one guy messes up, you’ve got to let him know so it won’t be a recurring thing. With that, guys are taking steps in the right direction, both leadership roles because everybody on this team can be a leader in their own way.”

The Raptors come in on a four-game winning streak. 

Sixers-Raptors 5 things: Challenge awaits with DeRozan, Lowry

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Sixers-Raptors 5 things: Challenge awaits with DeRozan, Lowry

Sixers vs. Raptors
7 p.m. - CSN/CSNPhilly.com/streaming live on the NBCSports App

The Sixers (13-26) go for their second straight win and sixth in eight games as the Toronto Raptors (28-13) visit the Wells Fargo Center for the third of four meetings between the teams this season.

Here's what to look for in the Wednesday night duel:

1. Rollin' in the New Year
What a difference a year makes.

After an abysmal 2016, the Sixers look like a whole different team in 2017, winning five of their last seven games. While that run includes a win over the hapless Nets, it also features wins over a few playoff contenders, including the Hornets and the latest win over the Bucks.

Part of the Sixers' roll has been, of course, because of Joel Embiid. The center's highlight-laden January has seen an increase in his production. In six games this month, he averages 22.5 points and 9.2 rebounds to go with 2.3 assists, 2.5 blocks and one steal per game. In his last two games, the aforementioned wins over the Hornets and Bucks, he has dominated by getting to the free throw line 32 times, making 25 of his attempts.

One issue for the Sixers winning ways is Embiid's workload. The team plays four sets of back-to-backs in its next 10 games, meaning Embiid will likely sit at least four times in the next few weeks. 

Beyond Embiid, the Sixers' bench has been rolling thanks to some continuity. Nerlens Noel, who missed the win in Milwaukee with a sprained ankle, has nine points and 5.8 rebounds a game during the run. Dario Saric has averaged 11.1 points and has made 12 threes in the last five games.

The Raptors are the Sixers' biggest test since at least the Celtics game on Jan. 6, if not since the last Sixers-Raptors clash in mid-December. The Raptors have won both meetings this season by a combined 36 points. Toronto also comes in just as hot as the Sixers, having won four straight -- although Wednesday will be the second part of a back-to-back.

2. An All-Star worthy backcourt
The reason why the Raptors are such tough matchup for the Sixers begins with their vaunted backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, both of whom will likely make their third All-Star appearance in February.

DeRozan has cooled off a bit since his torrid league-leading scoring start, but the two-guard is putting up one of the best offensive seasons in Raptors history. With 36 points (not to mention 11 rebounds and six assists) on Tuesday night, DeRozan became the second player in Raptors history with 20 30-point games in one season. 

The high-volume shooter makes over 21 field goal attempts a game, almost all of which are inside the three-point arc. He averages 28.1 points, tied for fifth-best in the NBA, by burying a steady stream of mid-range jumpers and by getting to the free-throw line, where he shoots 84.5 percent.

Lowry, who didn't play on Tuesday in order to rest, is the yin to DeRozan's yang. The former Villanova point guard has been electric this year from three, shooting a career-best 44.4 percent. He also takes a lot of shots (14.7 per game) but also dishes the ball out well, averaging 7.2 assists. Some of the Raptors' best units have been Lowry with Toronto's bench players as the veteran point guard facilitates the offense and shows off the defense that made him a key part of Team USA's gold medal in 2016.

Lowry not playing on Tuesday likely had to do with the large load that he shoulders for the Raptors. He averages a career-high 37.2 minutes per game and has played at least 40 minutes 12 times this year, including four times this month. The Raptors hope to compete for the No. 1 overall seed (they're 1.5 games behind the Cavaliers), so Lowry may not get the chance to rest that often in the second half of the year.

3. Getting defensive
The challenge for the Sixers' defense goes well beyond DeRozan and Lowry. The Raptors' full offense is not fun for any team to oppose. In fact, according to advanced statistics, Toronto -- not the high-flying Golden State Warriors -- are No. 1 in offensive efficiency.

As one could guess with a team led by DeRozan, its No. 1 ranking isn't because of three-point shooting. Like their leading scorer, the Raptors are one of the best teams in the league of getting to the free-throw line. That could be bad news for Embiid if he plays because he's been averaging north of four fouls a game in his last 10.

While the Raptors are solid at getting to the free-throw line and inside the arc, they do have some deficiencies. A big one is rebounding. They have a relatively high offensive rebounding rate, but they're near the bottom in the league in allowing opponents to pick up offensive rebounds. 

If the Sixers to make tonight's game competitive, they'll need a collective team effort on the glass against a front-line devoid of two potential starters, Jared Sullinger and Patrick Patterson.

Beyond their big two, the Raptors have a few other scoring options. Cory Joseph scored 33 in place of Lowry last night in Brooklyn while Terrence Ross averages over 10 points a game off the bench. Small forward DeMarre Carroll is finally healthy and bring a solid three-point shot along with his trademark defense.

4. Injuries
T.J. McConnell (right wrist) and Embiid (flu) are questionable for the game (see story). Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out for the Sixers.

Sullinger (foot), Patterson (knee) and Delon Wright (shoulder) are out for the Raptors.

5. This and that
• The Raptors have won 14 straight against the Sixers. Their last loss to Philly came on Jan. 18, 2013, exactly four years ago. 

• With McConnell questionable, Chasson Randle may see more of an opportunity (see full story) while nearing the end of his 10-day contract signed on Jan. 10. Randle impressed in 16 minutes off the bench vs. the Bucks, scoring 10 points while draining two threes. He also committed five fouls in the process.

• The matchup with the Raptors begins a four-game stretch against teams that made the playoffs last season, culminating in a game against the Clippers next Tuesday. Luckily for the Sixers, only one of the games (Atlanta on Saturday) is on the road and the Clippers are missing two of their top players with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin out.